Marvelous Middle Grade Monday - When Life Gives You O.J.

Author: Erica Perl
Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers (June 14, 2011)
Audience: Ages 8 to 11 years old
Source:  Personal Copy
Realistic Fiction * Family Realtionships * Middle Grade

Description from GoodReads:

For years, 10-year-old Zelly Fried has tried to convince her parents to let her have a dog. After all, practically everyone in Vermont owns a dog, and it sure could go a long way helping Zelly fit in since moving there from Brooklyn. But when her eccentric grandfather Ace hatches a ridiculous plan involving a "practice dog" named OJ, Zelly's not so sure how far she's willing to go to win a dog of her own. Is Ace's plan so crazy it just might work . . . or is it just plain crazy?

Erica S. Perl weaves an affectionate and hilarious tale that captures the enduring bond between grandparents and grandchildren.  Even when they're driving each other nuts.

If anyone tells you that middle grade fiction is just silly or filled with a lot of fluff, hand them a copy of When Life Gives You O.J. by Erica Perl.  Prior to reading this book, I was most familiar with Perl's picture books, especially her Chicken Butt series.  It doesn't take much to know that if you put chicken & butt in the same title you will likely get something hysterical.  So, though I didn't know much about When Life Gives You OJ, one look at the title and cover gave me the idea that maybe I was in for more of Perl's humor.  And humor, I did get.  But I got much, much more than humor.   

Zelly is a 10 year old transplant to Vermont.  Due to life circumstances, Zelly and her family have moved from Brooklyn to Vermont to share a home with her grandfather, Ace.  Right from the beginning, you get to meet Zelly's eccentric grandfather who prefers to be called Ace and who chooses to call Zelly - Kid.  From a crazy note secured to an empty OJ container with a rubber band, you discover something about Ace and Zelly.  Ace knows that Zelly wants a dog more than anything.  His plan - have Zelly show that she is ready for the responsibility of taking care of a dog by practicing on a "practice dog" which just happens to be in the shape of a plastic orange juice jug.  Will the plan work or will Zelly just die of utter embarrassment?  

Just this part of the story alone, would have made for a hilarious read.  However, this really isn't a dog book.  Behind this quirky, fun cover, Perl has disguised this amazingly rich and insightful story about family dynamics and a relationship between a child and a grandparent.  There is definitely an aspect of humor to Perl's story, but if that is all you walk away with, then you haven't really read the book.

Right from the beginning, I appreciated that Perl worked to capture the awkwardness of leaving everything behind for a new and radically different place.  (Just to note - It is true - you could have lived your entire life in Vermont but if you weren't born there you aren't a native.)  This aspect of childhood (moving and fitting in) is one that many children can relate to and Perl connects with her readers with both humor and insight.  The struggle with making friends, dealing with the class bully, having a friend go away to camp while you stay behind, the arrival of another new-comer (this time a boy) are all significant milestones in the development of the majority of school-age children.  

On top of this, there are all kind of family dynamics at play that most children face at some point in their life.  What happens after the loss of one grandparent (who just happened to be your favorite)? Or what insight do you learn about your own parent when you learn about her own relationship with her father? 

In some ways, there are truly deep concepts going on in this small book which makes it powerful in its own way and one that should be shared with as many children as possible.  When I finished reading Perl's book, I immediately knew that this would be on my read-aloud list for the 2011-2012 school year and would be one of the book I recommend widely.  

If you haven't heard of When Life Gives You OJ, definitely check it out. It just may end up on one of your lists.  

Check out the official book trailer for When Life Gives You O.J.:

For more information about Erica Perl, check out her website: 

You can find her on twitter: @ericaperl 

Or on Facebook:

Book Review - The Red Umbrella

Author: Christina Diaz Gonzalez

Publisher: Knopf Book for Young Readers (May 11, 2010)

Reading Level: Upper Middle Grade/YA

Source: Personal Copy

Rating: 5 Star (A definite must read)

Description from GoodReads:

The Red Umbrella is the moving tale of a 14-year-old girl's journey from Cuba to America as part of Operation Pedro Pan—an organized exodus of more than 14,000 unaccompanied children, whose parents sent them away to escape Fidel Castro's revolution.

In 1961, two years after the Communist revolution, Lucía Álvarez still leads a carefree life, dreaming of parties and her first crush. But when the soldiers come to her sleepy Cuban town, everything begins to change. Freedoms are stripped away. Neighbors disappear. Her friends feel like strangers. And her family is being watched.

As the revolution's impact becomes more oppressive, Lucía's parents make the heart-wrenching decision to send her and her little brother to the United States—on their own.

Suddenly plunked down in Nebraska with well-meaning strangers, Lucía struggles to adapt to a new country, a new language, a new way of life. But what of her old life? Will she ever see her home or her parents again? And if she does, will she still be the same girl?

The Red Umbrella is a moving story of country, culture, family, and the true meaning of home.

In late November 2009, I signed up for  The Story Siren's 2010 Debut Author Challenge.  The challenge - to read at least 12 novels by debut authors in 2010.  With this review, I will be logging in on #12.  WooHoo!  I still plan on continuing with the Challenge for at least another 12 books.  Now on to the review....

History does not have to be dry and boring and Christina Diaz Gonzalez proves that to us in her debut novel The Red Umbrella.  In this powerful and personal story of a young teenage girl named Lucia, readers learn about the events that took place in Cuba and the United Stated in the early 1960's. Gonzalez used the stories of her parents and mother-in-law as the original seed for telling the world about Operation Pedro Pan, when families in Cuba sent their children to the U.S. to avoid Castro's revolution.

According to Gonzalez, there were nearly 14,000 children who arrived in Miami during the years of 1960 to 1962.  Some were met by family and friends while others were placed in a camp until a foster home could be located for them.  Her research uncovered that of these 14,000 children nearly 90% were reunited with their families over a period of time.

With this as her background, Gonzalez paints a vivid portray of what life would have been like for a teenager in Cuba in 1961.  What might she have worn, or what music she listened to, or even what movie she might have seen.  This attention to detail and desire for accuracy rather than slow down the story allows the reader to image what life would have been like.  Lucia, along with her younger brother Frankie live a comfortable life with their parents.  Initially, their parents seek to protect them from the realities of Castro's revolution.  However, there comes a point when their parents are no longer able to keep out the atrocities that are occurring.  In a final attempt to protect them, Lucia and Frankie are sent to the United States in hopes that they will eventually be reunited as a family.

The book is divided into two parts - the first half of the story provides you with the background and what is happening in Cuba.  The second half explores the reality of what it is like for Lucia and Frankie to live in a foster home while they wait and hope for reunification.

As I read The Red Umbrella, I was emotionally moved by the story of the Alvarez family.  Their story is one of loss, love, grief, and hope.  I seem to be saying this a lot lately, but keep a box of tissues near you as you read this book, and you do need to read this story.

For me, the story of the Alvarez family was made even more real when I had an opportunity to see Gonzalez at Vroman's Bookstore in Pasadena.  The audience was filled with predominately Cuban Americans.  Many of these individuals had either been Pedro Pans or had left Cuba in some manner during the 1960's.  The Red Umbrella was not just a story, but it was their story.  Some had hardly shared this story with their families.  Others were using this book to share a piece of their personal history with their children or grandchildren.

This is a powerful story, and an amazing debut novel by Christina Diaz Gonzalez.  I look forward to her next book whenever it is released and I hope that this book will receive the attention, accolades and awards that it is due.  If you don't have this on your "to-be-read" pile, then get it on there.

You can find out more about Christina Diaz Gonzalez on her website here:

You can find her on Twitter @christinadg or on Facebook:

You can purchase of signed copy of The Red Umbrella (while copies last) at Borders Glendale.